Legal Notice to BECIL for it's tender to procure employee tracking smartwatches and a Covid-19 mass surveillance system #SaveOurPrivacy

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Tl;dr

IFF has sent a legal notice to a government entity BECIL that intends to procure two items (amongst a larger procurement of various other medical safety devices), i.e.  “Personnel Tracking GPS Solution” and the “Covid–19 Patient Tracking Tool”. We have called on BECIL to modify it's tender to account for the grave breaches to the privacy, dignity and autonomy of health care professionals and members of the public that will be caused by these technologies being used and implemented by the Government.

Background

We strongly support medical professionals who are the first responders to Covid-19. Protecting public health is a priority for all of us over at IFF. However, this cannot and should not be approached by breaches to privacy, dignity and autonomy of individuals, especially — medical professionals —  in the absence of any clear basis in law.

This is why we have sent a legal notice to the Broadcasts Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL is a PSU under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting). Our notice dated April 26, 2020 is limited to items in the tendering process specifically the “Personnel Tracking GPS Solution” and the “Covid–19 Patient Tracking Tool”. The procurement commenced for these technology tools while ostensibly intended to address health risks of Covid-19 cause certain injury to the constitutional rights of privacy, dignity and security rights of health care workers and those at risk of being infected by this virus.

"Personnel Tracking GPS Solution" : Smartwatches or Digital Handcuffs?

The first item sought to be procured is the “Personnel Tracking GPS Solution” for the ostensible health and safety of medical professionals and, “rescue teams”. The data collected through the, “cloud based software application” will be stored in a “data centre… in India”.

Specifically, there are three illegal features of this system as per the, “Solution Objective”, that will be implemented through a “wrist watch/I-card/App”.

  • Deployment through physical wearable devices: There are repeated references to the use of this system through a, “wrist watch/I-card/App” which presumes that the deployment may be implemented through a personal wearable that is made compulsory.
  • Restrictive, invasive monitoring of healthcare workers through features such as geo-fencing and live movement tracking: The product functionality of this personnel tracking system is extensive with the ability for administrators to create, “geofencing of zones” and “track workers of their location during working hours”.
  • Use of facial recognition technologies intended to prevent, “impersonation control”: The “wrist watch/I-card/App” should have the ability to “manually take photograph of the person who is wearing the wrist watch/ I-Card/ App”, and “store all employees reference pictures which will be used regularly by a designated set of supervisory staff to compare with the photos shot by the workers during working hours”. Further functionality is indicated for, “AI Based face detection of Employee”.

“Covid–19 Patient Tracking Tool” : A digital leash on every Indian?

As per the Addendum No. 1 dated April 17, 2020 an additional item has been added for procurement under the title of a “Covid–19 Patient Tracking Tool”.

This tool, is incredibly invasive as per the following functionality listed below:

  • Leaps from healthcare surveillance to national security: The intended objective of the tool as listed in Item No. 1 of the specifications is to conduct, “Intelligence investigation platform & tactical tool to detect, prevent and investigate threats to national security”.
  • Integration of multiple databases and personal data points: The “Covid–19 Patient Tracking Tool” is required to pull/collect information from multiple existing government databases and personal data points such as “telecom data and internet data”.
  • Mass surveillance by design: The functionality of the “Covid–19 Patient Tracking Tool” is mass surveillance by its very design. The desired functionality includes, “to identify suspect Locations, Associations & Behaviour.” This includes, “Easily Geo- Fence an area of interest (eg Meeting place, airport, mosque, railway station, bus stand etc) and identify all the people present at the location at the time of event” and, Should be able to Identify a suspects behaviour, see what he or she does on specific days of the week, where does he or she order food from, where does the suspect go for regular walks, where does he/she work during the day, where does he/she sleep at night etc.

Today, i.e. April 26, 2020 we sent a legal notice to BECIL clearly stating that the project offends the fundamental right to privacy, dignity and autonomy. We specifically reasoned how this project lacks any legality. In addition to this notice we intend to follow up this matter rigorously by seeking transparency in each step of this procurement and also if such situation does arise to examine steps to challenge it before an appropriate body.

We hope this situation does not arise and BECIL acting within the powers reserved under the tendering process modifies and removes the procurement of both the “Personnel Tracking GPS Solution” and the “Covid–19 Patient Tracking Tool”. This also makes just common sense given the availability of funds should be focused towards the immediate needs of healthcare professionals such as PPC (Personal Protection Coverall) Kits which are also a part of the present procurement.

Incidentally, this is our second legal notice to BECIL with the first being on the now recalled Social Media Communication Hub. Subsequent to our notice the Ld. Mahua Moitra, Member of Parliment, Lok Sabha had filed a public interest litigation in the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India leading to it's recall. We urge BECIL to be mindful of this undertaking to even in the present procurement as it involves common concerns of mass surveillance and impact on the privacy of medical professionals – as well as every Indian.

Important Documents

  1. Link to IFF's Legal Notice to BECIL dated 26.04.2020 (click here)
  2. Link to IFF’s work on the Social Media Communication Hub  (click here)
  3. Twitter thread on the Supreme Court hearing dated August 3, 2018 on the Social Media Communication Hub (click here)

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